New Light on an Old Subject

The University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law Begins New Life at Historic Downtown Campus

Like a church, a structure doesn't make a school. But adding state-of-the-art AV/IT equipment, live-client clinics, courtrooms, wireless, and 169,000 square feet of well-lit space doesn't hurt. The "countdown to downtown" for the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law began several years ago and was completed last month as the school moved from the U of M campus into the former U.S. Postal Service Customs House at 1 North Front Street in downtown Memphis.

"The move to the new building will significantly enhance our ability to carry out our mission to prepare the next generation of lawyers and judges, as well as provide greatly needed access to the legal system for underserved groups through our in-house legal clinics," says School of Law Dean Kevin Smith. "In addition, the new facility and location will enable us to compete for the best students throughout the region and country."

The School

The law school moved into an on-campus building in 1965. Almost 40 years later, the building on the University of Memphis main campus was suffering from age and several shortcomings, including small classrooms and poor classroom configuration, student overcrowding, a flawed HVAC system and serious flooding of the basement during heavy rains. Eventually, the building became a factor in the school's accreditation, requiring that something had to be done.

The University of Memphis and the Tennessee Board of Regents initially considered two options: renovate the existing campus structure or build a new facility on the U of M's Park Avenue Campus. However, then-Law School Dean Don Polden, along with a number of local lawyers, judges, and businesspeople, brought up the idea of moving the school to the old U.S. Customs House/Courthouse/Post Office.

There were obstacles, but when the smoke cleared away, the USPS transferred its easement on the property back to the City of Memphis, and the city, in turn, transferred it to the state for the Tennessee Board of Regents to operate the public university law school on the property.

In the fall of 2006, the USPS formally handed over the keys to the property to the state and the university, and the $42 million renovation and construction of the building began.

The Building

The original facility was built in the early 1880s, and officially opened in 1885. Covering 140,000 square feet on four floors, the Italianate Revival-style building was considered one of the most beautiful in the South when it was built. The building featured a marble exterior, two prominent clock towers on its north and south sides, four lofty-ceilinged courtrooms, brass window cages in the Post Office, hardwood paneling, stone fireplaces, hand-painted wood trim, and other magnificent architectural touches inside and out.

In 1903, as Memphis grew and the amount of business and activity within the building increased, a west addition was built, again using marble as the exterior building material.

Another expansion, to both the north and south sides, was built in 1929, along with a new eastern façade, and a complete renovation of the East Lobby, third-floor courtroom, two monumental staircases and the elevator lobbies. During that project, limestone was used on the exterior of the building and Tennessee marble was used on the interior. Also, the clock towers were shortened.

In removing years of government-issue paint and other materials, architects found beautiful woodwork, including interior beams covered in intricate, hand-painted stencil designs. Original wainscot paneling also was found and has been repaired and added in various parts of the building. In other areas, sections of original plaster decoration have been restored. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

"Great lengths have been taken to preserve the historical integrity of the building while transforming it into a high-tech, cutting-edge learning environment," says architect Bill Nixon, project director. "... large areas of the facility were preserved in close collaboration with the Tennessee Historic Preservation Commission."

In addition to the overall renovations outlined above, the building underwent a $2,021,000 seismic retrofit. This included the bracing of parapets, balustrades, and the east limestone columns; the installation of floor slab diaphragm ties to exterior walls and seismic floor tie plates between existing construction phases; the addition of seismic tie struts between the East/West Wings and the central 1903 edition, and more.

Today

More than 500 students, professors and staff now occupy the "new" building, which is nearly three times larger than the school's previous home on the U of M campus.

For more details on the process, move and structure, go to www.memphis.edu/law/

Compiled from University of Memphis staff reports.

Photos by Lindsey Lissau/University of Memphis


Suzanne Craig Robertson SUZANNE CRAIG ROBERTSON is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal.